Was the backlash against Joss Whedon for Avengers: Age of Ultron warranted?
Short answer: yes. Long answer…
I knew vaguely that there was dissatisfaction in the fandom over some choices, but a lot of it I had chalked up to puritanism. There will always be backlash when it comes to adaptations because everyone has their favourite story arcs.
So when I went to see it, I found myself just as angry, for reasons almost completely unrelated to comics.
This post is not going to be spoiler-free, but I will try to keep it to a minimum. Here is why Age of Ultron deserves the hate it’s getting.
Natasha is a godsend in the Avengers franchise, much loved by the fandom by and large. She was sorely underdeveloped in Avengers Assemble, but many of the characters were. Natasha got the development she deserved in Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier. We were ruined for all others as it turns out. The Russo brothers set a high bar that Joss Whedon didn’t even attempt to reach when he took the reins back.
Whedon’s feminism is a relic from the era of Spice Girls and girl power. It was liberating in the 90s, but feminism has evolved since then. We are no longer satisfied with female characters who know how to use a weapon being equated with development. We want emotionally complex characters, characters with depth, and characters not written in a problematic manner. Whedon’s feminism has not evolved, and thus we are left with his signature woman: cutie with a weapon. We had it with Buffy as well.
Natasha is relegated to love interest. Now Natasha having a love story is nothing bad. Steve, Thor and Tony have love interests and they still get to be the hero. The problem is that Natasha’s romance comes at the cost of heroism. It’s strange, but suddenly the Black Widow can’t break out of a Medieval-looking cell without someone coming to her rescue. Gone is the woman who can bring an empire to its knees with her mastery of manipulation. Instead we have a damsel.
And while we’re talking about Tony and Thor, let’s discuss an interesting scene where the boys play a game of one-upping, talking about their absent girlfriends. Pepper and Jane are mentioned, but never shown. Maria Hill (who in the comics is a biracial Latinx) makes the quip of “Where are all the women?” and it’s greeted with laughter.
But this is a legitimate criticism. The main female cast in this movie is Natasha, Wanda Maximoff and Dr Helen Cho. Others like Maria and Peggy Carter make cameo appearances, but these three play a major role.
Dr Helen Cho, I will admit, is a marvel. A Korean actress playing quite a progressive character. I can’t remember the last time I saw an Asian woman who wasn’t a geisha fantasy for a white man. The white men actually appreciate her prowess, and her knowledge is what saves her. I am white though, so any criticism of her character from Korean or Asian feminists should be valued, and just because I have not seen any criticism does not mean it does not exist.
Wanda is slightly more difficult to discuss. I don’t feel qualified to talk about her, but I will try. Wanda’s history and heritage in the comics are tricky. Most remember her from the 2005 House of M arc, in which Wanda, driven insane by the loss of her child, tries to alter the fabric of reality. It was a poor depiction of a homicidal mentally unstable person, but has unfortunately impacted her character, as seen in the end-scene of Captain America 2.
Wanda is Romani and she is Jewish, just like her brother. They have never been white, only white-passing depending on the artist. One of the more popular theories as to why they were whitewashed is that Fox still owns X-Men, therefore they could not have that link to Magneto. However Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch have been Avengers since 1965—they are barely X-Men. And surprisingly, Magneto is not the only Jewish character in the world. So to have that positive piece of representation retconned is insulting enough. The actors chosen, while talented, were not Jewish or Roma. What makes it worse is that Whedon decided that the Maximoff twins should side with HYDRA.
Just to reiterate: the Jewish-Romani characters are siding with the Nazis.
And then we come to Natasha. Suddenly she’s cast as Bruce Banner’s love interest, despite no indication from the first movie that this was even coming. They ended the first movie with a Natasha still afraid of the Hulk. Now she is his handler, singing lullabies and casting bedroom eyes.
Odd romance aside, it’s disappointing to see her handled this way after Captain America 2. She seems suddenly helpless, unable to escape on her own and brooding over the fact that Bruce won’t be with her. Natasha is human, but she is goal-orientated. That is what makes her a good assassin and a better Avenger. She knows how to get things done, and that is difficult to do when you are trying to convince a man to run away with you.
And then we come to the infamous sterilisation scene.
Let me point out that this is a canonical piece of characterisation. That Natasha is sterile is not the main concern here. Many women are sterile or made sterile, and it is good to see those women represented as strong and wonderful.
The issue comes with the tone of conversation. Bruce and Natasha are discussing monstrosity. To Natasha, that she is sterile makes her a monster. It reads less like Natasha’s own demons make her think this, and more like this is an irrefutable fact. Natasha was made infertile in Russia, and now she cannot have children. This is comparable to Bruce’s Hulking out.
This point could have been handled well. It has been in the past. If you are interested in this origin and want to read it done right, Marjorie Liu’s The Name of the Rose graphic novel is phenomenal. It’s sensitive, it’s aware, and it plays a part in the narrative. It didn’t in Age of Ultron. It was simply to have Bruce and Natasha compare their monstrous pasts. It’s highly insensitive of Whedon, and can be very offensive to others.
So is the backlash warranted?
I’m saying yes. I’ve provided links to other posts below which further elaborate on points above. The writing was sexist, racist and ableist. From a creative perspective, the world he is trying to build doesn’t work because there is too much disconnect from the wider MCU. Characters do things which we don’t believe they would do because as an audience, we follow more than just Whedon’s interpretation. Things become shaky, characters lose dimensions, and it can be painful to watch.
It was a decent film. The effects were great, the villain was enjoyable… but the writing is weak and disjointed, and relies too heavily on harmful tropes. The backlash is deserved.
- Elizabeth Olsen’s ableist interview (x)
- A fansite exploring the MCU and its relationship with PoC (x)
- Sexism and Age of Ultron (x)